Barbara Byrd-Bennett still remembers how often her daughter, Nailah, quoted coaches of every sport growing up in New York.
Nowadays, Byrd-Bennett frequently hears similar reverence repeated from her twin grandsons, who just started playing football.
"I just know from them it's always, 'The coach did or said this or that … the coach, the coach,' '' the Chicago Public Schools CEO said Wednesday inside her office. "To some kids, the coach is like a god, better than dad and mom.''
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Men and women placed on such lofty pedestals by children must meet standards equally high, which explains what compelled Byrd-Bennett to suspend two high-profile, successful CPS boys basketball coaches for four games apiece. Simeon's Robert Smith and Morgan Park's Nick Irvin behaved in a way Byrd-Bennett considered unacceptable for coaches during a profane altercation in front of players Jan. 16 at Chicago State University after Simeon's 53-51 victory.
No, Byrd-Bennett doesn't care that the suspension will keep Smith from coaching Simeon's nationally televised showdown Saturday against No. 1 Young, a game she plans to attend. Bold agendas outweigh basketball schedules and only one audience concerns Byrd-Bennett.
"What is the message we are sending to our children if adults are exhibiting behavior contrary to what we want for our kids?'' Byrd-Bennett said. "I'm really disturbed.''
A videotape of the incident Byrd-Bennett requested after hearing "through the grapevine'' about the steady decline of coaching conduct proved Smith and Irvin violated Article 1, Section 2 of the CPS bylaws. Further conversations with security guards and athletic administrators who were present reinforced her observations.
The bylaw states, "Coaches are role models to players, students, staff and the general public and shall conduct themselves accordingly at all times.'' The more evidence Byrd-Bennett gathered about an argument that moved from the floor to outside the teams' locker rooms, the more committed she felt about taking action to "change the culture'' of CPS sports. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. This was hers.
"You could clearly see the coaches were engaged in dialogue in which they weren't being friendly and this didn't look like sportsmanship expected from a coach,'' said Byrd-Bennett, who replaced Jean-Claude Brizard in October. "I'm not saying they're not good people. They could have gotten wrapped up in the moment but it didn't look good. I wanted to send a very strong message.''
The memo received by CPS basketball coaches: You can't do whatever you want. Your new boss doesn't impress easily. Accountability matters more than ever.
"Every coach in the Chicago Public Schools, without exception, is responsible for teaching and demonstrating respectful, moral and ethical behavior,'' the CPS chief declared in Wednesday's official statement.
Elaborating later as she leaned back in her chair, Byrd-Bennett made a point to say the penalty included both coaches having to explain their absence to players.
"It's a teaching moment,'' Byrd said. "The coaches need to own up, man up, to the fact that they got wrapped up in the game. That's the lesson. I didn't script what I wanted them to say but it's this: We get it. We're still going to play hard but when one makes a poor decision, there are going to be consequences.''
Smith declined comment to the Tribune and Irvin never returned several messages. Officials at their respective schools referred all inquiries to CPS spokesmen. Asked his reaction, Mayor Rahm Emanuel put the onus on coaches.
"You can have a conflict, you can have a competition and you set an example with one of the big issues we have to do, which is how do you handle conflict resolution. Our kids don't know that," Emanuel said.
Not surprisingly, the Positive Coaching Alliance, which will have three workshops with CPS coaches next week, applauded Byrd-Bennett forcing Smith and Irvin to fulfill every coach's biggest obligation.
"If coaches do not set a good example of showing respect for their opponents or for competition in general, then they should be held accountable,'' PCA executive director Jason Sacks said.
Tragedy looms over the discipline that Byrd-Bennett stressed was unrelated. The shooting death of 17-year-old Morgan Park student Tyrone Lawson occurred outside the Chicago State gym shortly after the teams fought in the postgame handshake line and both coaches started yelling.
"One and one does not make two in this instance and I would hope smart, rational people will see there's no connection,'' Byrd-Bennett said. "My heart and sympathy goes to the family of that young man … which has no direct correlation to what occurred at the game.''
This kind of quick impact seemed inevitable for a reform-minded leader like Byrd-Bennett, a woman who measures sports beyond statistics and believes they are "catalytic'' and "motivational.'' She's a woman who wonders why CPS schools don't use Lake Michigan to start rowing programs and whether Chicago's pro teams will invest heavily in high school sports the way Cleveland's did when she led that city's schools. She's a woman who sees CPS athletics mainly as an avenue to personal growth and education. She's a woman who once changed rules to require student-athletes in Cleveland public schools maintain a 2.5 GPA for eligibility.
"They went ballistic,'' Byrd-Bennett said, smiling.
As Byrd-Bennett was reminded Wednesday, sometimes raising the bar makes people angry. Welcome to Chicago, chief.